Well, if the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia can tweet my 2012 piece on this “traditional” dish (albeit with the caveat that retweets are not endorsements), I reckon I can re-post it.
Let me say this is not just a shaggy dog story about a particular region of Spain. So many elements of the story—
- the spread of French high cuisine by non-French cooks,
- the tangled relationship between feminism and women in the kitchen,
- the extent to which the Italians can lay claim to various pasta dishes
- the industrialization of pasta,
- the recent invention of national dishes,
- the difference that just one person can make
—crop up time and again in food history.
December 26th is St. Stephen’s Day, the day that Catalans celebrate by eating canelones (cannelloni). When I was living there for a few months, I delved into the origin of this custom.
Stage One. Amazement at the ubiquity of canelones year round in Catalonia, and skepticism about the standard story that they were brought by Italian Swiss immigrants in the late eighteenth century.
Stage Three. Constructing a more plausible story about the early twentieth century appearance of canelons in Catalonia, part of an increase in wheat pasta that occurred in many parts of the world.
A hundred years ago, Barcelona was booming, textiles factories were spinning, the well-to-do had a social round of balls, country excursions, racing. Women shopped for new furniture, fancy clothes, fine china. Everyone socialized in restaurants and cafés that served French dinners and té anglaise. Many were owned by migrants from the north of the Italian peninsula–the Italian-speaking Swiss Ticino, the part that had for a time belonged to the Kingdom of Sardinia that traded with Genoa and Catalonia.
For a really fancy meal, they went to the Maison Dorée in Plaza de Cataluña owned by the brothers Pompidor. And for the absolutely latest dish, too time-consuming and complicated to make at home, they called ahead and ordered canelons. The restaurant set to making the pasta, stuffing it, and coating it with béchamel. Béchamel shouted that you were understood food, just as today an informed choice of olive oil labels you as understanding food.
And here the story branches. The first branch has to do with ladies learning to cook canelons.
Ladies who wanted to cook this kind of food (or more likely teach their cook to make it) attended the near-professional classes offered from 1924 to 1931 in the feminist Institut i Biblioteca Popular de Cultura de la Dona. We may not think of cooking classes and feminism as a natural pair, but to the founder of the Institut, Francesca Bonnemaison, they were, like libraries, part and parcel of improving women’s culture and competence.
The classes were taught by a professional chef, Joseph Rondissoni, an Italian Swiss, who during his career was executive for various hotels, opened a gourmet shop, and edited the journal Menage, very influential in Spain, designed to improve household management, particularly cooking. Rondissoni was a disciple of Escoffier who prided himself on sending out well-trained chefs around the world. In Ma Cuisine (1934) Escoffier offers a recipe for canneloni stuffed with chicken, foie gras, game, or other meat (though he coats them with a demi-glace sauce with tomato).
And when Rondissoni published his Culinaria in 1945 following the end of the Spanish Civil War, recipes for “canalones” and other pasta had a prominent place in an early section of the book.
Culinaria is still in print. The 6th edition was prefaced by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, one of the best writers on gastronomy not just in Spanish but in any language (though look him up–he was much, much more).
It is true that a recipe for canelones Rossini had been published earlier by one of the founders of modern Catalan cuisine, Ignasi Doménech. Following the custom of associating the Italian singer and gourmet with truffles, he suggested stuffing them with a mixture of chicken livers, bacon, pork loin, brains, grated cheese, tomato sauce, truffles, breadcrumbs, sherry, and egg yolks. The distinguished historian of Spanish cuisine, Néstor Luján, credits Domenech with the popularity of canelons, an attribution that fits nicely with recent Catalan nationalism.
I tend instead to credit Rondissoni, just because he did so much to shape Catalan and Spanish cooking in the 1940s and 1950s. But it would need more research to resolve the issue.
The second branch of the story concerns the pasta. At the beginning of the twentieth century, part of the great explosion of factory-made dried pasta, canelons were imported from a French firm called La Poule (the chicken), 16 to a box. It tells you something about how prestigious (and presumably expensive they were) that they were separated by pink tissue paper.
Ramon Flo, who made industrial pasta in Barcelona from 1911 on, saw an opportunity. After various efforts, he found ways to make these cylinders, now flattened out, selling them under the copycat brand name El Pavo (the turkey) from 1914.
By the 1920s, canelons had become a modish dish for well-to-do Barcelona families to serve on December 26th, St Stephen’s Day. They displaced a rice dish made with the leftovers of the Christmas Day soup. Nestor Luján remembers that his family used El Pavo.
Sometime in the 1950s or 60s, as Spain began to recover from the Civil War, canelons became the common Catalan dish for St Stephen’s Day. And now they are omnipresent in Catalonia. They appear as the highest flights of fancy in famous destination restaurants, in humble take out places, besides being obligatory for St Stephen’s Day, made from El Pavo pasta, on sale in any little grocery.
Thanks to Jeff Koehler who xeroxed for me the introduction to 100 Recetas de Canelons (1990) by the famous Catalan gastronome and historian Néstor Luján from which part, but by no means all, of this story is taken.